COVID-19 brought the concert industry to a screeching halt in 2020. But all that disposable income music fans generally spend on concert tickets and tour merch has been redirected to the retail front: supporting artists and labels by shopping online during quarantine.
And this holiday season brings an overwhelming amount of worthy box sets, books, vinyl and cultural ephemera. After many hours rummaging, scrolling, clicking and sampling, we’ve rounded up this holiday gift guide — consider it the sonic equivalent to a PS5 or Great Green Egg grill for the rabid music fan in your life.
The Secret DJ – Book Two (Velocity Press)
One-time pop star and acclaimed Mixmag columnist the Secret DJ continues to chronicle the last 30-plus years of dance music’s evolution as a superstar DJ before it all went pear-shaped. Yet Book Two is not a direct follow-up to the biographical The Secret DJ: From Ibiza To the Norfolk Broads. Rather, they take a more anthropological approach, recounting the purity of a youth movement falling prey to gentrification and filthy lucre. “No one in publishing would have the balls to touch this book with a bargepole,” the Secret DJ said in a statement on the Velocity website. “It takes courage to speak up. There’s not much in the way of reward for telling it like it is, not any more. If you expose an industry and that industry hates you for life with the intensity of the sun.”
Bobby Bare/Shel Silverstein – Bobby Bare Sings Shel Silverstein Plus (Bear Family)
There was no better vessel for the songs of children’s author and Playboy cartoonist Shel Silverstein than outlaw country great Bobby Bare. The latest gourmet box set from Germany’s Bear Family offers a complete look at this most unique creative friendship, including classics like Lullabys, Legends and Lies; Hard Time Hungrys and Singing in the Kitchen. This eight-disc box is a master-class in sonic storytelling by two true American masters.
Amy Winehouse – The Collection (UMe)
We will never find out if Amy Winehouse would have toured with the reunited Specials, sung a duet with Frank Ocean or thrown down with Cardi B had she survived past age 27. But we do have her small yet potent discography, which — barring her 2008 underground release, The Ska EP — is included in this definitive new box set. The collection features all three studio albums (Frank, Back To Black and the posthumous Lioness: Hidden Treasures) plus a remix collection and a killer live disc.
Motorhead – Ace of Spades 40th Anniversary Deluxe Box Set (BMG)
Like the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop” or AC/DC’s “Highway To Hell,” the title cut from Motorhead’s epic 1980 record remains their signature war cry. The album’s super deluxe vinyl edition is housed in a faux wooden gaming box featuring the remastered LP, two live soundboard shows from the 1981 Ace Up Your Sleeve tour, a 10-inch of instrumental tracks, another double-LP of outtakes and rarities, memorabilia (including the rare Motorhead “Rock Commando” comic book) and a DVD containing television appearances and rare concert footage. If you have any doubt about the insanity of this Ace box, just ask Henry Rollins.
U2 – All That You Can’t Leave Behind Super Deluxe Edition (Island/Interscope/UMe)
With U2’s 10th LP, 2000’s streamlined All That You Can’t Leave Behind, U2 likely disappointed fans who savored their experimental, electronic approach from the mid- to late ‘90s. But this essential super deluxe edition offers key clues to what the album could’ve been had they kept things weird: Beyond the original, remastered album and two-disc concert LP Elevation Live From Boston is a wealth of illuminating B-sides, outtakes, alternates and remixes.
Neil Young – Archives 2: 1972 – 1976 (Reprise)
The limited-edition vinyl run sold out in a blink, and the proper retail version doesn’t come out until early March. But that shouldn’t stop you from gifting the long-awaited second volume of Neil Young’s Archives series (which is now streaming on Young’s Archives site). It’s a forensic examination of Young’s output from 1972 to 1976, the time of Harvest and his beloved “Ditch Trilogy” of On The Beach, Time Fades Away and Tonight’s The Night. (“‘Heart of Gold’ put me in the middle of the road,” Young wrote in his liner notes to Decade. “Traveling there soon became a bore, so I headed for the ditch.”) At 131 tracks, 63 previously unreleased, this is the USS Flagg for Young fans.
Tom Petty – Wildflowers and all the Rest (Reprise)
At a time when his contemporaries were cranking the volume to keep up with grunge and alternative rock, Tom Petty marked a significant creative turning point with the graceful Wildflowers. This long-rumored box set is everything fans could want: It offers a cornucopia of bonus material, including another full album of outtakes, a set of home demos and a disc of some of the best live Petty available on acetate.
Sade – This Far (Legacy Recordings)
Sade’s six albums for Epic Records are among the most cherished recordings in modern R&B. And with new music on the horizon, it’s time to re-evaluate a career that’s been sailing smooth for over 35 years. This Far marks the first time Diamond Life, The Promise, Stronger Than Pride, Love Deluxe, Lovers Rock and Soldier of Love have all been collected as one proper package. Remastered at Abbey Road from the original analog studio tapes, these records have never sounded crisper or clearer.
The White Stripes – Greatest Hits (Third Man/Columbia)
Wanna feel super old? Kids born when the White Stripes released their eponymous debut are now old enough to drink. Few bands to emerge from the 2000s are worthy of a greatest hits album, but Meg and her “kid brother” Jack are high up in that rarefied air. This new collection, curated by Mr. White himself, is a perfect intro to a duo who brought the blues to a bluesless era of new millennium rock.
John Lennon – Gimme Some Truth: The Ultimate Mixes (Capitol/UMe)
Dec. 8 marked 40 years since John Lennon was murdered just steps from his home at the Dakota in Manhattan. Produced by his genius son Sean Ono Lennon, with Yoko Ono as executive producer, these Ultimate Mixes of 36 Lennon classics render all previous Best Of sets obsolete. Meanwhile, hardcore audiophiles will marvel at the work of engineer Paul Hicks, who rebuilt these songs from the original multi-tracks. They’ve never sounded better.
Flogging Molly – Swagger 20th Anniversary Edition (Sideonedummy)
Following the top-flight Celtic punk of Dropkick Murphys and the Pogues, Dublin’s Flogging Molly ensured the genre remained vital heading into the 21st century. Their 2000 debut, Swagger, arrived like the missing link connecting Hell’s Ditch to Gang’s All Here, traditional Irish melodies colliding with evergreen Oi! aggression that sawed through the pop-punk milieu at the time. This 20th anniversary box set includes the original LP on double colored vinyl, a live 12-inch, the Swagger Live DVD, buttons, patches, slipmats and a lyric booklet.
Prince – Sign O’ The Times: Super Deluxe Edition (Warner Music)
If the world were to end on New Year’s Eve, at least we finally got to hear the mythical kitchen sink edition of Prince’s double-album masterpiece before the big kaboom. Music intended for such mythical lost albums as Dream Factory, Camille and Crystal Ball all turn up in the studio section of this 10-disc affair — including 45 previously unissued studio songs recorded between May 1979 and July 1987, along with a complete live audio set documenting the Sign O’ The Times Tour. The DVD, meanwhile, includes the storied New Years Eve 1987 concert at Paisley Park where Miles Davis came out to jam. This super-deluxe package sets a high watermark — not only for the Prince catalog, but for archival music in general.
LyricPop Book Series (Akashic Books)
With their charming LyricPop children’s book series, Akashic Books helped make 2020 more tolerable for parents juggling virtual elementary school and working from home. The collection finds renowned illustrators bringing beloved songs to life through sweet-natured and insightful interpretations of the lyrics. The first 10 tomes feature cute, kiddo-friendly reimaginings of varied songs like Peter Tosh’s “African,” the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations,” Eric B. and Rakim’s “Move The Crowd,” Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop” and Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It.”
Gorillaz Almanac (Z2 Comics)
Over 20 years, Gorillaz have amassed one of the millennium’s most robust discographies, including Demon Days, The Fall and the vastly underrated Humanz. Now the first great cartoon band since Jem and the Holograms is finally immortalized on pulp with the Gorillaz Almanac, published in partnership with the renowned Z2 Comics. Inspired by the great British tradition of the hardback annual, this graphic novel reads more like an Archie comics digest, incorporating exclusive new artwork, comic strips, puzzles, games and guest appearances from Gorillaz studio alumni. And while the band’s sound has always been Damon Albarn’s vision, Almanac finally offers co-creator Jamie Hewlett the full shine he deserves. (Plus, as a bonus, every edition comes with a standard copy of the bonkers new Gorillaz album Song Machine, Season One.)
Tears For Fears – The Seeds of Love: Super Deluxe Edition (UMe)
Songs From The Big Chair had more hit singles. But the third Tears For Fears album, buoyed by the Sgt. Peppers-esque “Sowing The Seeds Of Love,” marked an evolution in Curt Smith and Roland Orzabal’s creative partnership beyond mass appeal. With B-Sides, alternate mixes and around an hour of unheard demos and rehearsal sessions, this deluxe edition brings a fresh angle to this underrated era of the band. And Steven Wilson’s 5.1 mix brings out new layers to LP cuts like “Woman In Chains” and “Year of the Knife.”
Elton John – Jewel Box (UMe)
Thirty years ago, Elton John released To Be Continued…, a box set filled with big hits, rarities and unreleased material. In lieu of an anniversary, he wholly reimagines that archival concept with Jewel Box. Handpicked by the singer himself, the seven-disc set includes deep cuts, B-sides and rare tracks from his entire career — Bluesology to The Diving Board. The most essential ingredient is a demo collection, highlighting the early days of John’s songwriting partnership with Bernie Taupin.
The Kinks – Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One: 50th Anniversary Edition (BMG)
The 50th anniversary edition of the Kinks’ anti-industry masterpiece remains one of the most scathing satires against the record business — and, sadly, it remains all too relevant in the present day. Like the recent editions of The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society and Arthur (Or The Rise and Fall of the British Empire), this deluxe Lola is another choice package.
A 60-page hardback book features notes, photos, memorabilia and excerpts from Ray Davies’ “1970 Diary”; the three CDs include the remastered original album and numerous extras (previously unreleased session and live tapes, instrumental and acoustic versions, kitchen demos and BBC material). Collectors will also appreciate the two reproduced international seven-inch picture sleeve singles for “Lola” and “Apeman.” As for its famous title track, Davies hopes this reissue will frame the song in 2020 as “a celebration of artistic freedom (including my own) and the right for anyone to be gender free if one wishes.”
Between the deaths of numerous musical legends (Jimmy Cobb, Henry Grimes, Lee Konitz, Jimmy Heath, Ellis Marsalis) and the shuttering of iconic venues (New York’s The Jazz Standard and Washington DC’s Twins Jazz Club), jazz has been hit harder than most genres this year. Yet 2020 has been a banner year for new releases and quality archival titles.
Blue Note Records has released enough choice material to fill any jazz critic’s year-end list: issuing new albums from favorites like Ambrose Akinmusire, Derrick Hodge, Norah Jones, Bill Frisell and Nels Cline, along with impressive new signees like cornetist Ron Miles, all-female ensemble Artemis and saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins. (The latter’s label debut, Omega, topped the New York Times‘ 2020 jazz list.) And for collectors, Blue Note keeps delivering with their Tone Poem vinyl remaster series, reissuing seriously deep titles like the Horace Silver Quintet’s 1958 session, Further Explorations, and the Bobby Hutcherson album Oblique, recorded in 1967 but not released until 1979.
Resonance Records, meanwhile, peppered this past RSD Black Friday with a trio of rarities discovered by the Jazz Detective himself, Resonance co-president Zev Feldman: a 1968 set from the Bill Evans Trio at London’s famed Ronnie Scott’s jazz club, a two-CD collection of previously unissued 1967 recordings by saxophone titan Sonny Rollins and a 1982 live set from Jamaican pianist Monty Alexander at the Fort Lauderdale club Bubba’s.
Pianist Dave Brubeck turned 100 in Heaven on Dec. 6, and his family is celebrating his centennial with two key archival releases. As the inaugural title on the newly established Brubeck Editions, Time OutTakes unearths an hour of recently discovered material from the 1959 album that defined Brubeck and his classic quartet. Also available via Verve label is Lullabies, a beautiful final solo recording Brubeck made for his grandchildren, improvising serene melodies across five original tracks (“Going to Sleep,” “Lullaby For Iola” “Koto Song,” “Softly, William, Softly,” and “Briar Bush”) and such timeless standards as “Brahms Lullaby” and ‘Over The Rainbow.”
And from Sunnyside Records comes a pair of new box sets highlighting key periods in the careers of two giants. Passion Flower For Doris Duke is the second collection curated by the label featuring the music of pianist Joe Castro; the six-CD set includes Atlantic studio sessions, home recordings and live material featuring rare performances from Paul Bley, Paul Motian, Leroy Vinnegar, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones.
Sunnyside also has a four-disc set showcasing two historic Charles Mingus concerts from Bremen, Germany in 1964 and 1975. These shows, recorded during two creatively fertile times, feature accompaniment by Eric Dolphy, Jaki Byard, George Adams and Don Pullen, among others.